By Rick Steves
A few things that seem too good to be true…really are true. And making totally free voice and video calls over the Internet is one of those things. Taking advantage of this option can help you stay in better touch, and spend far less.
All you need is a smartphone, tablet, or laptop; a strong Wi-Fi signal; and an account with one of the major Internet calling providers: Skype, FaceTime (preloaded on most Apple devices), or Google+ Hangouts.
To get started, visit the service’s website or download its free app, and register. Once you’re signed up, you can talk online via your computer to a buddy with a device running the same program — just look for them on your list of contacts, and click “Voice Call” or “Video Call.” If both of you have cameras, you can see each other while you chat. You can even show off the perfect piazza view out your hotel-room window.
The biggest issue travelers have with Internet calling is finding a signal that’s strong enough for a smooth call. With a solid signal, the sound quality is much better than a standard phone connection; but with a weak signal, the video and audio can be choppy and freeze up. If you’re struggling with your connection, try turning off the video and sticking with an audio-only call. Or…wait for your next hotel.
While you can configure your smartphone or tablet to use the cellular data network for Internet calling, doing so burns through your data roaming allowance (especially if you’re using video). Except in emergencies, I’d stick with Wi-Fi.
Many Internet calling programs also work for making calls from your computer to telephones worldwide. Most services charge a very reasonable fee — generally just a few cents per minute (you’ll have to prebuy some credit). For example, I use Skype to make computer-to-telephone calls all over Europe. I use Skype to call ahead from home and reserve hotels, or while I’m traveling to confirm tomorrow’s reservation without paying high voice-roaming fees. This is also a good, affordable way for folks back home to call you in Europe: Give them your hotel-room phone number (or, if you’re using European SIM cards, your mobile-phone number), and they can call from Skype to your phone for much cheaper than dialing direct from their landline.
If you aren’t traveling with your own device — or if the signal at your hotel is just too weak — you’ll discover that most European Internet cafés have Skype, as well as microphones and webcams, built into their machines. Just log on and chat away.